According to trauma-informed somatic practitioner Ashley Neese, author of the forthcoming book Permission to Rest, noticing and harnessing the physical feeling of the words “yes” and “no” is a powerful way to check in with yourself and set boundaries that align with your values. After all, the body and the mind are closely interlinked to the point where physical feelings often serve as especially accurate cues for your mental state of being.
What is a somatic boundary?
Most boundaries are what Neese calls cognitive boundaries, which are decided by your internal thought process. Somatic boundaries are “about embodiment versus approaching boundaries from a cognitive place,” says Neese.
“Somatic boundaries are about embodiment versus approaching boundaries from a cognitive place.” —Ashley Neese, trauma-informed somatic practitioner
To identify how your somatic boundaries might show up, Neese suggests a simple exercise: Consider anything in the past week that irked you—whether something as benign as opening your refrigerator to realize that you were out of milk for your coffee, or something as serious as being let down by a friend. “As you think about that [event] and notice it in your mind’s eye, consider what happens in your body,” she says. For instance, are you tensing up, are your shoulders hunching, is your chest tightening, is your heart racing? These are all examples of somatic boundaries in action.
Because the body often reveals how we naturally feel and think about something before the mind has a chance to fully process it, using physical cues to set boundaries can allow you to most accurately represent how you feel. For example, you might feel the desire to say “no” to something in your bones, but your mind might turn itself inside out to convince you otherwise. “We’ve experienced so much conditioning around how we should act and how we should be,” says Neese, which can influence our cognitive decision-making and cloud our ability to set boundaries as a result.
The body, however, will still reveal how we actually feel—regardless of societal norms and expectations. So, if you listen to physical cues (á la somatic boundaries), you’re more likely to speak your “no” and stick to your true north.
Why is it beneficial to set a somatic boundary?
Neese’s work is rooted in helping people heal from trauma, and she says establishing somatic boundaries is an important way to support your own safety and well-being—especially if you’ve experienced any form of trauma.
It’s natural for the mind to block out or try to “forget” past traumatic experiences as a means of coping; whereas, it’s been established in research on trauma that the body remembers. As Thoko Moyo, a registered clinical counselor who specializes in trauma previously told Well+Good, traumatic experiences are “encoded in our brain and in our memories, and then that can also translate to living in our muscles and our heart.”
It’s for this reason that Neese says setting somatic boundaries can help you protect yourself. Your thoughts may be a less reliable resource for learning how you truly feel about something (and responding in kind), especially if that thing is in any way connected to a past traumatic experience that your mind is blocking out; your body, on the other hand, will remember the traumatic event and offer specific signals accordingly.
Listening and responding to these physical cues “is a way for your boundaries to become more integrated, more full, and more connected,” says Neese. When it isn’t just your mind but also your body fully on board, “that’s ultimately what feels restorative and healing,” she says.
How to use somatic boundaries to protect your mental health
Taking the time to observe your physical reactions to events, and learn what “yes” and “no” physically feel like in your body will allow you to tap into somatic boundaries when you need them. “Consider asking yourself, ‘How does it feel in my body when there’s a boundary violation?’ or ‘How does it feel when I’m pushed to my limits?’” says Neese. This way, you’ll be primed to notice those feelings and respond accordingly whenever they crop up.
In this realm, somatic boundaries can be helpful for ensuring you don’t continually violate your own boundaries. Let’s say you’re determined not to overwork, and you’ve set some cognitive boundaries to support this goal (perhaps a boundary around not eating lunch at your desk or not checking Slack after hours)—but you find you’re struggling to maintain them. Listening to physical cues—like a tightness in your chest or a restlessly bouncing leg—could help clue you into the precise times when you may be stepping on your own boundaries and remind you to enforce them.
“If I don’t have a sense of what ‘no’ feels like in my body, then it’s going to be really hard for me to say ‘no’…in a way that lands and feels coherent.”—Neese
The same goes for using somatic cues to identify and respond to others’ violations of your boundaries. For example, think about a time someone in your life crossed a boundary you set—say, a parent showing up unannounced to your home after you’ve told them that you don’t appreciate surprise visits. Learning to identify your physical reaction to this violation can help you formulate a clear and firm “no” and deliver it with full-bodied confidence.
“If I don’t have a sense of what ‘no’ feels like in my body, then it’s going to be really hard for me to say ‘no’ out of my mouth in a way that lands and feels coherent,” says Neese.
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